In August 2012, judo blackbelt Marina Drašković founded Judo Team Fuji in Croatia — a gym focused on training children and youth with disabilities. What began with just five children with cerebral palsy has grown into a club with 40 members and a rapidly growing waitlist.
Drašković began training judo when she was nine years old. She became a talented competitor, training twice a day at an Olympic level. Despite training all over the world and sharing the mat with world champions, Drašković says her biggest win in judo is founding Team Fuji. From her first-ever lesson with children with disabilities, she was hooked. “When I did one judo session for them, it was like I gave them millions of dollars.” She said this is her passion, and the children “shook her world upside down.” They were extremely positive, gentle, grateful, and eager to acquire a new skill and share the mat with other kids.
The club separates the students into groups to create an individualized approach reflective of their disabilities and needs. Some members are in wheelchairs or have challenges with motor skills. “You just need to be a little creative and you can adapt BJJ or judo to any diagnosis,” Drašković says.
Working with children with cerebral palsy and various motor skill disorders inspired Drašković to integrate Brazilian jiu-jitsu techniques into their judo training. The ground techniques allowed a new level of inclusivity. The club now hosts around 40 children and people whose diagnoses include, but are not limited to, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, intellectual disabilities, motor impairments, and autism spectrum disorders. However, Drašković made a point to include children and judo practitioners without disabilities to foster inclusivity and dispel any sense of segregation.
Judo Club Fuji is completely free, running entirely off donations. “These parents have enough expenses with medical bills,” says Drašković. “My biggest wish is to make a club that everyone can go to.” The training is very individualized and based on nurturing a positive environment for all. A lot of Drašković’s fellow judo practitioners were eager to get involved with the project because of how rewarding it is. “What you get is worth a lot more than money,” says Drašković, adding that the club members enjoy excursions, trips to the movies, and various other activities outside of the gym. “We became like a family, it became more than a judo club.”
The club has created a space where children with disabilities can train and bond with their peers without disabilities. It also allows those who have disabilities to learn and practice judo and jiu-jitsu techniques that come with a sense of empowerment. Many of the members have also acquired real-life skills from participating in this project. The philosophy behind Team Fuji is based heavily on the concept that diagnoses are not limitations, but rather motivators. It is the first club of its kind in Croatia, where jiu-jitsu is just beginning to become more prevalent. Drašković hopes to expand the club and eventually acquire her own gym space so that she can take everyone on the waitlist and offer this training to all people who want it.
Drašković’s bio states that she “finds people who live according to their possibilities very uncreative.” Despite saying her judo career wasn’t what she wanted it to be, it seems she has certainly surpassed her possibilities and created something much larger, and helps others do the same.